My first section hike, done. It wasn't actually part of the plan, but I have a funny way of finishing what I start. The Ozark Highlands Trail is a total beast, and one easily overlooked. In fact, the whole Ozark Mountain region is frequently overlooked. If you're looking for gorgeous, nearly pristine solitude, this is it. Best-kept wilderness secret in the whole country. (But maybe don't go in the summer.)
There are a number of hidden gems in the Ozarks. Before finishing up the Ozark Highlands Trail, I checked out Whitacker Point, which is just one of a myriad. Finally hit the trail around 930a, and it was already hot, muggy. Summer is not the season to trek in the southeast, sure heat and humidity, but really it's the bugs. In the first hour, I'd already picked three lonestar ticks off of my person. Naturally, I bathed myself in 100% deet and committed to hourly tick checks. Not trying to get ill out there, or worse. For the next 20 hours or so, I pulled/picked/brushed tick after tick away, or at least what I believed were ticks. Turns out most of them were actually chiggers. Despite being from the southeast, I'd never seen chiggers before. They look and even act like ticks. They burrow their heads in, but rather than suck your blood, they release an enzyme that breaks down our tissue. That's what they feed on, your tissue. Gnarly, right? That enzyme is what causes the raised bumps and intense itching that accompanies chigger bites. I got dozens and dozens of 'em. My one great mercy? That they don't actually burrow under our skin and crawl around wreaking havoc. Can you imagine if that myth were true?
Stopped at the Richland Creek bridge, near the halfway point, for a dip and a thorough tick check around 430p. Not feeling psyched to be out there at that point. Tired of the heat, the humidity, the bugs, the bushwhacking. But, my ego wouldn't let me quit just cuz it was a little tough. The second half was about as pleasant as the first. I was relieved a few hours later when I came to a detour, which included nearly 3 miles of walking forest service roads. The first was wide, graded, lovely. The second was steeper and unmaintained, but still better than the "trail." Dunno how many miles of the OHT I skipped, but I figure it was comparable. The detour was 2.7 miles; it started shy of mile marker 150 and the first mile marker I saw after was number 153.
Saw some pretty good wildlife out there, per usual: a turtle, a couple great blue herons, some huge snails, a pretty black spotted salamander, a snake around three and a half feet in length (which I nearly stepped on). And a handful of fireflies, which was nostalgic and brought me back to catching them in the front yard as a child. Seems it's been forever since I've seen them. There was also some sort of mystery beast that bounded away from me in the middle of the night. I saw his eyes, and I could see him moving low to the ground and hear him bounding deliberately through the overgrowth. Noisy, but not clumsy. No idea what it was, but I imagine it was something cool, and I wish I'd seen him better.
The prize sighting on this trip actually came after I reached Mile 161 and forded Richland Creek east of the trail. I'd decided not to yoyo, as I'd originally planned, because my pace was slower than I'd anticipated and I didn't have enough food for the return trip. Also, ticks. Instead, I headed for Snowball with the intention of hitching back to my car. After more ticks and chiggers than I could count, I was ready for a road walk. Hit the ford and officially finished my last OHT section around 1a. Time for another full-on tick check, my last until I got back to civilization.
Spent an hour bathing before pressing on. About 10 minutes later, I turned a corner and was face-to-face with a huge wild boar. He was about 20 paces ahead of me, so let's call it 60 feet. Conservatively, I'd say he was 200 pounds, and likely bigger than that. His tusks were at least three inches long. He must've been blinded in my headlamp, because he was all over the place. I'd surprised him, and he first turned hard to his left like he was going to dart into the woods. Then he did a quick 270, first turning away from me, then coming back around and b-lining straight at me. He was charging me, and I was f*cking scared. I did the only thing I could: I instinctively got into an ahtletic stance, facing him head-on, and I roared. It lasted maybe 2-3 seconds, but it was so loud, deep, and intense that I was horse afterwards. At that, he finally veered off into the woods away from my voice. But not before he'd covered 30 of the 60 feet that separated us. Damn, he was fast. And I was shaking. Razorback attacks are rare, and extremely dangerous. They're brutal animals that attack and keep attacking until their victim is completely incapacitated. Seriously close call. I got outta there quick. The first six miles were along forest service roads, and the first hour of that was a steep uphill. I was shredding, high on adrenaline. When that wore off, I took a sitdown water break about a mile from town.
I arrived in Snowball around 5a. It's a creepy little town, maybe the only one I've ever been to where I was actually afraid for no other reason than the sense I got. Dunno why, but I felt unsafe. Turned off my headlamp and slipped by the few rundown homes, pepper spray in hand. Hit pavement and started cruising, knowing that I was likely to have to walk at least the first 11 miles (of about 45) before coming to the first intersection where I'd hoped there would be more traffic. Saw three cars in as many hours between 5a and 8a. Not too surprising for a Sunday in the boonies. Threw my thumb out for the first two, which were both trucks, and which both blew by me. I was actually distracted taking a photo when the third car passed, and she stopped without being prompted to see if I needed help. We chatted a bit during the quick 3-4 mile ride. She was sweet, and it was clear that she'd been living up there in the middle of nowhere for a long time. She dropped me at the convenience store in Witts Springs. I'd hoped to get a soda and a bag of chips, but they weren't open yet, and there was no telling when, or even if this place was gonna open at all on a Sunday. I took an hour-long nap on a shaded bench out front before heading out to the hot roadside to start hitching.
I'd walked over 45 miles to that point, and I was ready to be done walking. I stood out there for three hours trying to catch a ride before I finally gave in and walked myself outta town. The road walk was absolutely miserable. Exposed, hot, narrow. I saw a car about every 20-30 minutes going my way, which is kind of a lot over a 12 hour period. I knew it would be a tough hitch, but I couldn't believe no one stopped. I was in the middle of actual Bum F*ck Nowhere walking a highway wearing running shorts and a hydration pack. I mean, c'mon. I covered about 11 more miles before someone finally - FINALLY - pulled over.
He had me hop in the bed of his truck, which is my dream hitch every time. "Is that legal in Arkansas," he asked. I assured him it is. In truth, I have no idea. I was just desperate. Love riding in the back- no need to make small talk, no need to feel guilty for smelling bad, and 50 mph winds blasting through my hair. So good. They dropped me at Sand Gap after a wicked-fun 20-minute ride on a narrow, winding highway. No hope of a hitch on busy AR-7, but I was so grateful for the the two pickups I'd already gotten that I wasn't mad about it. I ran out of water as soon as I got out of the truck, so I woulda been in trouble if I hadn't caught that last hitch. Not much in the way of general stores out that way. Glad I waited on the one in Witts Springs! I actually ended up jogging four or so of the last six miles. Can't believe I had the energy, but it felt good. Was able to get water out of a spigot at the Fairview parking area en route. Just a few miles to go after that. Then, finished. I was spent. My legs carried me nearly 65 miles, all told. You can't imagine my elation at the sight of my car.
With this most recent trip, I've now explored the Ozarks in all seasons. (Spring isn't really a thing in the southeast, so fall, winter, and summer round it out.) All things considered, fall trekking is the way to go, which is what I assumed at the outset. Still, if I'm going to have a chance of being successful on my next speed attempt in November, everything will need to align perfectly. Better to be sure and scout every detail I can, since there will be plenty of curveballs regardless. Now I've seen the full breadth of the trail, which is more a goat path than a trail in some places, and more a bushwhack than a goat path in many others. The moss-covered tread on this most recent section is indicative of how little traffic this part of the trail sees. It's extremely overgrown and difficult to follow in broad daylight- basically a guessing game in many places. It's about as bad as the Hurricane Creek Wilderness area, which I hiked in the middle of the second night on my first speed attempt. At least this section has the white blazes, which aren't reflective but are way better than the nothing that marks the Hurricane Creek Wilderness. I'd thought that a full moon would be helpful on the overnight sections, so I planned this trek accordingly. Turns out the relentless canopy cover along the trail completely negates any value the moon might have offered. And while that's a bummer, it's nice that there's one less variable to try to align. Instead I can focus on pinpointing an appropriate weather window (temperature, humidity, etc).
As I continue to understand this region better and better, I love it more and more. Stoked for November. Gonna be brutal. Gonna be awesome.
As I planned for my Spring 2017 attempt, I was crossing my fingers for clear weather and a 40-60* temperature range on or around the full moon tomorrow. That'll be my shot, I thought. But no such luck. The weather was calling for mixed snow and rain every other day during that week. Woof. But I wasn't gonna let a little weather ruin the trip altogether. No reason I couldn't do a little scouting. And I'm glad I did; I learned a lot about options for the end of my trip this fall and what the last bit of trail looks like, what to expect.
Woolum was more accessible than I’d expected, but the trail, a mere 45-foot ford of the Buffalo River between the two, was not. I tried three times to cross, and failed as many times. I first attempted where the trail intersects the river. I could see the "Woolum" sign on the other side of the crossing, just a stone's throw away. Seemed the obvious choice. As I took off my shoes and socks, I thought to myself how odd it was that the sign was on the bank opposite the Woolum Campground. At least I'll be officially done before I hit the ford on my next speed attempt, and I'll have a sign to mark it. The water was moving really quickly, and I noticed that I felt anxious as I stepped cautiously into the swift current. I used my trekking poles to steady my stride as I ventured further out. I could feel the fist-sized riparian rocks shift and roll beneath my feet. The water reached the middle of my chest as I neared the middle of the crossing. Then, the wind picked up and nearly knocked me off balance. I stood there fighting the current, not yet halfway across, trying to slow my breathing and ground myself as the water pounded relentlessly against my upper chest. I felt as though I were a whisper away from being swept downstream. This is kinda fun, I thought. And terrifying.
I knew the water probably wouldn't get more than a few inches deeper before I'd start to climb out the other side, but I also knew that I couldn't go any deeper and keep my feet under me. I made the decision to turn back, which was the easy part. I still had to make the turn, which would be the moment where I'd be most likely to be overtaken by the river. And sure enough, I misjudged the placement of my trekking pole as I turned and could feel the current pulling me off balance as I retreated back to the Woolum shore. Fortunately, I was able to climb up the sloped riverbed as I let the river take me just a little bit. Before I knew it, I was back on terra firma. Close one.
Well I hadn't driven all that way just to quit, so I put my shoes on and started to scout upstream. I found a much wider crossing point above the narrower section I'd just tried to cross. This time, I left my gear on the shore as I stepped out into the river again. Though the riverbed was wider and the water slower, it got much deeper much more quickly than I'd expected. Guess the soft, muddy bottom erodes more easily than the rocky bottom at the narrower crossing. I wasn't even a fifth of the way across when the water reached my mid-chest again. Given the slower current, it didn't feel as dire a situation, but I knew it was hopeless to continue. I turned around again, defeated. After that, I headed downstream. Although I figured it was a waste of time, I also wasn't willing to leave without at least having a quick look. The broader crossing below the narrow section looked promising, especially given the significant eddy on the opposite side, but I was skeptical. I dropped my gear (again) and stepped into the river (again). I hadn't even gotten into the current and the water was already waste-high. Forget it, I thought, and returned to the car.
I was done with Woolum, but I wasn't done. I drove out to the Richland Creek Campground to scout an access point there. It was accessible, sure, but it would've required me to backtrack 25 miles after completing the trail. Or worse, to hike that far just to reach the western terminus and get started. I figured there had to be an easier way, and upon further investigation, I found that there is.
I knew the weather was going to turn for the worse on Saturday, which left me a day to kill. I drove back up to Snowball, AR and then on to the Richland Creek ford, which ties into the OHT just four miles west of the Woolum terminus. Richland Creek is wider and deeper than I expected, but the current was lazily meandering, so I staged my gear - including my shoes - and made my way out into the current. I could see that the road picked up again about 15 yards upstream of where it ended on my side. Rather than try to cross perpendicular, I made a b-line for the opposite bank. I was over halfway when the water reached my collar bone. Had to swim the last 40 feet. No risk; it was a super-easy swim. Woohoo, there I was on the other side. Barefoot. And trying to figure out how on earth I was going to get all of my gear across without getting everything soaked in the process. Without an obvious solution, I pushed that question out of my mind and started walking up the road. I figured I'd at least have a peak at the trail intersection before heading back to get my shoes.
I took a similar approach as I forded back across Richland Creek. This time the water only reached my mid-abdomen. It was like- no thang at all, y'all! I walked the couple hundred yards back to my car and switched up my gear. Since I'd already ruined one camera, I chose to leave my phone and camera in the car. I opted for an old smartphone to use as a camera, figuring I wouldn't be too upset if I found myself swimming again. Grabbed some old trail runners too, which I wore for the next two crossings, and which drastically improved my footing. On this, my third ford of Richland Creek, I took a direct route, road to road, and the water reached my upper abdomen. I was still able to keep my feet, though I felt anxious as the water got deeper and deeper. Through all of that, I learned the best line to follow when I ford this fall. And the line held true on the fourth ford of the creek after my short hike today. I was surprised that I gained 10" of vertical over just 15 yards.
Hiking the last four miles of the OHT heading east toward Woolum was a total cruiser. It's all on graded dirt road, which is heaven compared to what I saw on the maze of well-maintained trails near Lake Fort Smith State Park. Having seen both ends, I'm leaning toward hiking the trail eastbound again for my next speed attempt in November. Standing at Woolum today, looking out over the Buffalo River crossing that had bested me only yesterday, was surreal and exciting. I can't imagine how it will feel to walk 165 miles straight through, then come out of the woods and see Woolum across the river. I have goosebumps writing about it.
As I was snapping photos along the river, a Great Blue Heron flew off from the opposite bank. I'd seen one yesterday too as I tried to cross from the other side. Probably the same one, but seeing him twice got me thinking about Native American medicine. The Great Blue Heron is the animal totem representing self-determination and self-reliance. And within that, a balance between standing alone and relating to others. Sounds about right as I continue to reconcile those two very real parts of myself.
I headed back and forded Richland for the fourth and final time this trip. Easy-peasy. And cold. The sun was setting as I arrived back at my car. That was the longest I've taken in a long time to hike just 8 miles, and it was kinda nice. The full moon was rising ahead of me as I drove out, a reminder of what I'd hoped to accomplish on this trip. Still, I feel satisfied- and excited. It was nice to go for a walk in the woods. I still wanna speed-hike the OHT, and I might throw in a nice leisurely thru-hike at some point as well. For now, I'm focusing on a section hike. Next order of business was to get eyes on the 34 miles of trail that I haven't seen yet, but the weather has made that difficult. I'd been considering a yoyo, but the snow and freezing rain in the forecast have led me to scrap that plan entirely. And I'm not curious enough to pay for a shuttle or go through the trouble to hitchhike, so I'll just do that little piece blind in the fall. As far as I can tell, there is nothing to be concerned about. And I'm reluctant to hike it in the summer, which I'm sure would be miserable.
I secured my parking permit Thursday morning at the Lake Fort Smith Visitor Center when they opened at 8a. I was on the trail by 840a.
I hadn’t really wrapped my head around what I was setting out to do. I’d never tried to set a Fastest Known Time before. The supported record is currently 62 hours 25 minutes. The unsupported record is 109 hours 53 minutes. I figured I could just hike the 165 miles straight in under 72 hours, which would easily break the unsupported record. And maybe even in under 60 hours, which would set the overall FKT. Ambitious goal, given that I hadn’t really done much planning and hadn’t trained at all for the attempt. All I had to do was keep walking, right?
Technically, the FKT Pro Boards require that a trekker carry a SPOT device in order to authenticate the time. I don’t have one, and I wasn’t willing to invest $200 to get one for just one attempt. Fortunately the OHT has mile markers almost every mile for the duration. I took selfies with my SUUNTO Traverse watch, which was recording the track. One of the fundamental issues with the SPOT is that it only proves that the device itself made the trip; it doesn’t prove that multiple people didn’t treat the trek like a relay. What I hoped to show with the selfies is that I was at mile posts every 3-6 miles. My watch died after about 8 hours, and my battery pack failed, so I wasn’t able to charge it. Instead, I started taking selfies with my cell phone showing the time. That way, the time on my cell phone could authenticate the timestamp on the photo, and the photo itself would prove that I was at the respective mile marker and at what time I was there. Additionally, I took photos with third parties that I ran into during my hike. I also had them take a photo on their respective phones and email them to me as verifiable proof of where and when they saw me. Only saw a half dozen parties who could verify, though. Worst case, I’d break the record and the Pro Boards would reject my claim. Even if the Pro Boards didn’t accept my evidence as sufficient, I’d know what I accomplished. I was really out there to see what I’m capable of. It was less about setting a record and more about pushing my limits. Being recognized for holding an FKT would be pretty cool, though. All that said, it was pretty unlikely that I’d break a record on my first attempt ever anyways.
That first day was actually quite pleasant. I was stopping pretty frequently to take photos. (The leaf peeping was on point!) I’m a backpacker and a photographer, so it’s difficult for me to be in such a beautiful place and not try to capture the experience. I figured taking photos was just a great excuse to take breaks, so they really didn’t affect my overall pace. I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I normally do, but I couldn’t skip the incredible scenes all-together. I was cruising right along, totally on-pace. In fact, I was ahead of pace at the 41-mile mark (one quarter of the way) and still at the 55-mile mark (one third of the way). The Ozark Highlands Trail is pretty cool, especially in the fall. It's also supremely challenging to speed hike. There is a lot of elevation gain and loss as the trail climbs ridges and dips into hollows. The tread is often narrow and downward slanting on the frequent side slopes. It’s also largely made up of jagged rocks, exposed roots, and thick overgrowth. Add to that the fallen leaves, and it got pretty dicey out there. It’s also not very heavily travelled, which meant that there were scores of spider webs across the trail, and I was one of the few people around to walk through them. I must’ve walked through hundreds, maybe even a thousand, of the freakin’ things. It was possibly my biggest gripe of the whole experience. I saw fewer than a dozen other trekkers the whole 53 hours I was out there.
It was really mentally demanding and exhausting to constantly pay such close attention to footing. I found it challenging to track both footing and the white blazes. Usually on a trail, I can just watch my footing and the tread is obvious. On the Ozark Highlands Trail, the tread is often obscured. And when it was on a well-graded, well-maintained section, it was exceedingly common for the trail to suddenly dart off of those sections inexplicably in favor of a narrow, overgrown corridor. It certainly kept things interesting. Things got even more challenging at night. It was a mental game. I was more tired and had to focus a lot harder to keep track of the trail. I really appreciated seeing signs of civilization on the night portions. I could see town lights off in the distance, hear the sound of distant passing cars, etc. The trail felt less remote. It felt more manageable when I had those reminders that I wasn’t all alone.
Had a tendency to see more wildlife in the late and early hours of the day, naturally. Saw a couple armadillos, a couple raccoons, and a couple owls. Thankfully I didn’t see anything threatening. It can be intimidating being out in the woods alone overnight. I’ve had a couple intense experiences over the years while night hiking, so those were in the back of my mind. Any eyes I saw or noises I heard that I couldn’t place were deer, end of story. That’s how I kept myself calm. And it worked really well. Think I’ll use that technique from now on. When the sun finally came up on the second day, I was feeling revived. The trail was a little easier to follow, the colors were popping. Things were looking up. Back to cruising, baby!
Since I hadn’t done much planning, I didn’t have a sense for water sources (among other things). Instead, I had worked out a water rotation plan where I carried no more than two liters at any given time. Whenever I came across a water source, I finished a liter and refilled it. My understanding of this trail is that water is exceedingly common in the spring and early summer, and that it’s not especially uncommon in the fall. I played a hunch, which I don’t recommend for an endeavor like this. One of the techniques I used on the two occasions where I was down to less than a quarter liter of water was to sip and then keep that water in my mouth for as long as I could without swallowing. Doing so increases saliva production and helps stave off dry mouth, which encourages us to drink more water. I also made sure that I was well-hydrated at the start, which gave me some wiggle room in the event that I actually couldn’t find water. I knew I wasn’t going to die of dehydration; worst case, I might get a little uncomfortable for a couple hours.
Food was never a concern. I’d allocated one bar/snack per five miles, which turned out to be excessive. Mostly, I was forcing myself to eat anyways. I knew I needed the calories, but I just didn’t feel hungry. I could probably do something more like one bar per 6-8 miles next go-round. Of course, I could also more regularly force myself to eat, which would probably be wise.
I didn’t start to experience any sign of muscle fatigue until about the halfway mark- mile 82. I figure in order to have a successful attempt at the speed record, I need to be feeling pretty good at the three quarter mark- mile 124. Once things start to get difficult, the experience becomes exponentially more challenging at an exponentially accelerated rate. If I’m still feeling good at mile marker 124, then things can start to get tough and I’ll still be in good shape overall. I can push through damn near anything for 41 miles. Just a walk in the park at that point. Instead, at mile 82 I was about 20 minutes behind the pace. And I was already experiencing pretty significant groin chafe, a couple small blisters, and fatigue. I’d hoped to avoid those symptoms for at least another 41 miles. I knew it was too early for me to be starting to suffer. Part of me wanted to go ahead and set up camp. What’s the point, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to stop, not until I’d at least pushed my limits a little bit. That’s just not who I am. Besides, it was so pretty out there! I pressed on.
I kept reciting the poem Invictus over and over in my head and imagining the impossible experiences that people have been through. Without exception, we’re capable of far more than what we’ve accomplished when our mind starts saying “I can’t.” Most of us are so quick to quit that we’ve never even flirted with our extreme limits. Then there is the question of self-efficacy. When my mind said “I can’t,” I knew I could. I just had to decide whether or not I wanted to endure.
by William Ernest Henley
OUT OF THE NIGHT THAT COVERS ME,
DARK AS THE PIT FROM POLE TO POLE,
I THANK WHATEVER GODS MAY BE
FOR MY UNCONQUERABLE SOUL.
OUT OF THE FELL CLUTCH OF CIRCUMSTANCE
I HAVE NOT WINCED NOR CRIED ALOUD.
UNDER THE BLUDGEONINGS OF CHANCE
MY HEAD IS BLOODY, BUT UNBOWED.
BEYOND THIS PLACE OF WRATH AND TEARS
LOOMS BUT THE HORROR OF THE SHADE,
AND YET THE MENACE OF THE YEARS
FINDS AND SHALL FIND ME UNAFRAID.
IT MATTERS NOT HOW STRAIT THE GATE,
HOW CHARGED WITH PUNISHMENTS THE SCROLL,
I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE;
I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL.
Lost the trail a couple times throughout the 127(ish) miles that I covered, but nothing too serious until around mile marker 105. The trail exited at a trailhead parking lot and just stopped. No sign of the trail across the street, or up the road. I looked everywhere for a blaze or obscure bit of tread. I had made up so much time in the last couple hours and was nearly back on track, so this hiccup was exceedingly frustrating. Finally, I pulled out my maps and trail description. (I hadn’t planned much, but I would never set out on a trip of this magnitude without resources.) Unfortunately the trail description was written opposite my direction of travel, so it took some translating. That wasn’t so bad; the real issue was that the trail description was wrong. It described a right turn from the highway into the trailhead parking lot to pick up the OHT heading westbound. It’s actually a left turn from the highway. All told, I spent over an hour trying to work out the route. I was pretty livid. Ah well, natural consequence for my lack of planning and scouting beforehand.
The next section of trail was the Hurricane Creek Wilderness, which is (apparently) known for its lake of maintenance and blazes. Not by me, though. Again, natural consequence of my lack of planning. Ended up following what I thought was the trail for about half an hour before I realized I hadn’t seen a clear blaze for quite a while. It looked like the same obscure tread I’d been walking on since Lake Fort Smith State Park, but I couldn’t be sure without the blazes. Perhaps it was just a drainage or a game trail, and I was actually off route.
Until now, the white blazes were mostly fairly common and obvious (placards rather than paint stripes on trees). Here, there were some stripes that looked like they could’ve been blazes, but they also looked like they could’ve been some sort of fungus on the trees, which was really common out there. Without the placards, it looked like the trail literally could’ve gone in any direction. There were “painted blazes” everywhere. I ended up backtracking for another twenty minutes, then I noticed a cut log. Why would there be a log that had clearly been cut if this wasn’t the trail? I turned around again and started searching for cut logs rather than blazes. It actually worked out really well, besides the extra 40 minutes I’d lost. By this point, it was pretty much impossible for me to make up the lost time. I was completely demoralized. I’d come so far, and I couldn’t help but wonder what I might be on track to accomplish were it not for these logistical mistakes. Again, I considered setting up camp right there. But I still wasn’t ready to quit. Instead, I took my second sit down break of the trip. I sat there for almost an hour, enough time to completely remove the possibility of finishing in under 62 hours 25 minutes. That way, I could just focus on my other goal: 72 hours. It was a great choice. By sitting down and taking a moment, I was able to let go of my attachment to a sub-60 timeframe. I even took my shoes off (for the first time) and gave myself a foot rub. Boy, they were looking rough.
I finally reached mile 110 and was feeling pretty excited to be two-thirds through. Just 55 miles left. At this point, I was still thinking I could do it sub-72. Just had to keep walking.
Finally, the sun rose again. It warmed up quickly, and my chafe got significantly worse as it did. Blisters too. That was tough, but the real trouble was that I could hardly be bothered to lift my head high enough to look for white blazes. It’s tough to be awake for 48 hours, let alone maintain a 2.4 mile/hour pace for 48 hours. But by now, my pace was plummeting. The question was very quickly becoming less about whether I could endure the sufferfest and more about whether I could keep my eyes open. Seventy-two hours? Sure, probably. But my pace was falling so quickly that it was looking more like 96 hours. I’m good, but I dunno if I’m that good. Hiking through a third consecutive night was going to be…something. Besides, I have to get back to Durango and be ready to work in a couple days. Wilderness therapy isn’t exactly a sit-down and recover kinda gig. I needed to be ready to rock.
Side note: I don’t think those mile markers are completely accurate – or even close in some places – which made it extremely challenging to gauge pace. Overall, I appreciated the mile markers because they gave me at least an idea of my progress. That said, a couple times mile marker 7 came after mile marker 8 (for example), or there were two consecutive mile markers for mile 65, or it would take me 40 minutes to cover one mile then immediately take me 8 minutes to cover the next. Suspicious.
After nearly 53 hours straight and just over 127 miles, I finally allowed myself to lie down at a fire road crossing. It was the first time I’d been horizontal besides a couple trips and slips. I’m not one to quit, but I’m also not one to be selfish and irresponsible. Those two important parts of my identity were at odds as I lay there in the hot sun. I could still beat the 109 hour 53 minute unsupported record. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near what I’m capable of doing, so was it really worth it just to check a box? To say “Yeah, I finished and set a new record.” Nah, I'm proud of what I accomplished here. Walking 127(+) in 53(-) is pretty damn good, and I walked over 80 miles straight before I sat down the first time. But that's not my limit; I'm just getting started.
The list of goals I’ve quit on in my life is pretty short. Whether I succeed or not, I always finish. The list of professional obligations I’ve failed to meet is even shorter. I decided my professional obligation is far more important than my ego, so I called it quits right there. And as I stood up, a couple on a four wheeler passed. I flagged them down, and they gave me directions to the nearest road and ultimately to the interstate. Off I went, satisfied with my effort. I figure it’s important that periodically in our lives we reach as far as we can for something we want and still fail. If we never miss our goals, never make mistakes, never feel uncomfortable, then we’re not growing. If we’re not growing, then we’ll never be the best version of ourselves. I don’t really care about the record itself other than that pursuing it is a part of pushing myself to be the best I can be. I’m happy with how it all turned out, because I gave it one helluva shot. In this moment – here, meow – I’m the best version of myself because I hike the way I live: full on.
I caught a hitch before I hit the highway. Mark got me down to the interstate. I had lunch, then caught a ride at a gas station the rest of the way. I don’t enjoy hitching, but I’ve actually had really good luck hitching pretty much every time I’ve done it. Didn’t expect to make it back to my car tonight, but here I am. Pleasantly surprised, and supremely grateful. Then Jesse and Jef pulled up- I met them shortly after the first mile marker. They were my first third party to verify my passing. Pretty neat to see them and tell my story. They were so interested and supportive and cool.
I’m planning to come back next year…better-prepared, better-outfitted, and with a better understanding of my obstacle. I’m shooting to complete the 165 miles in under 60 hours. And I’m certain I can finish in under 72. I’m still in a lot of pain, and I’m already psyched for next year. Bring it on!
Reflecting on this year’s walk, it feels important to name the obvious. There is absolutely an unavoidable element of luck that goes into something like this, regardless of preparation and training. I slipped on wet rocks, tripped on hidden roots, and had a number of mis-steps, one in particular that could’ve left me in a bad way. But through it all, I wasn’t injured in the slightest. Lady Luck was totally in my corner this year, and I’ll need her again next year – in addition to preparation and training – if I hope to meet my goal. Credit where credit’s due.